Terracotta Environmentalism

When we think of nature, we usually think of it as the presence of pristine wilderness and the absence of human touch. This image of a natural environment where human action has absolutely no role has informed our discourse on environmentalism for years. And most environmental policies have focused on ‘undoing’ human action on nature. This notion of a perpetual human-nature conflict is aligned with the green vision of environmentalism, which presumes that the segregation of human action from the natural world is the only way forward. Moreover, the greens focus on reforming human nature through the force of law, which culminates in policies such as eviction of forest dwellers from ‘protected’ forest areas, bureaucratic control of natural resources and restriction on economic activity or commercial use of the natural environment. The green approach lacks a sound economic outlook and has not just failed to deliver positive environmental outcomes but has also come at the cost of human rights and prosperity. 

An inclusive policy framework to tackle environmental challenges in the Anthropocene age must recognise human action as inalienable to the natural environment. Similar to a potter’s moulding of earthenware which aptly depicts the influence of human action, the terracotta vision values natural resources, not for their mere existence but recognises the relationship between human beings and the environment around them. Terracotta environmentalism differs from the green vision because, unlike the green approach, its end goal is not reforming human nature but to realign and restructure human incentives. There are broadly three pillars that support the terracotta vision: Markets, Communities & Livelihoods and Incentives.

The Role of Markets 

While markets are seen as enablers of environmental degradation, it may sound counter-intuitive to think about markets as the source of environmental preservation. Markets are agnostic. They are not accustomed to work only in a certain way, and can always be recalibrated to provide environmental solutions. Think about industrial emissions that cause large scale pollution. To curb the emissions, various governments have adopted command and control approaches such as heavy taxation and “one-size-fits” emission standards for different industries. This is not just economically unfeasible but also presumes a trade-off between economic growth and the environment. 

An alternative to such ineffective policies are Emission Trading Schemes. In an emission trading scheme, there is a cap put on the total emission based on the targets to which they have to be cut down. Based on the cap, the allowable emissions are then traded between industries. The emission units are also transferable hence if an industry uses less units and has spare units of emission permits, then it can sell its share to an industry which has a greater requirement. Emission trading schemes greatly decrease the compliance costs for industries, incentivise industries to shift to cleaner energy sources and also provide a cleaner environment without jeopardising economic growth. The practice has already started in some parts of India. Surat has the world’s first pilot project on emission trading in particulate matter. 

In this way, the system uses the power and flexibility of markets and leads to a win-win situation of simultaneously (i) reducing total cost of regulation, (ii) increasing firm profits, and (iii) protecting citizens from pollution.Markets are a result of human action and are fundamental to Terracotta Environmentalism as it seeks to bridge the ‘economic growth vs. environment’ divide. 

Communities and Livelihoods

Indian Forest Act of 1865 formally consolidated state power over forestry and obliterated centuries-old customary rights of forest communities in India. The Indian Forest Act, 1927 further consolidated the Indian State’s sovereignty over forest land and forest resources. The State maintains control over forests in the name of conservation while excluding the immediate stakeholders i.e. forest communities. The outcome of these legislative enactments was that forest communities which live off forest land and resources became ‘encroachers’ on the lands which they have historically been the stewards of. 

On the other hand, foresters or agents of the State were bestowed with the power and responsibility of ‘scientifically’ managing and conserving forest resources. Since the forest officials are neither immediate stakeholders of forest resources nor are their livelihoods dependent on the same, instances of forest mismanagement, illegal timber trade and human rights violation of forest communities have often come to the fore. 

The Terracotta vision stresses the role of forest communities, conservation-based livelihoods and property rights. Land rights and rights of access to forest resources are crucial not just for the prosperity of forest communities but are integral for good stewardship and management of forests. Since the livelihoods of these communities are directly linked to forest resources, they have greater incentives in safeguarding, managing and preserving forests. Community ownership and forest management through well-defined and enforceable property rights solves two problems simultaneously: they protect forests and provide a dignified livelihood to the country’s most impoverished communities. Nepal, which has a robust system of community forest management, has around 2,831,707 hectares of forests managed by local communities who earn their livelihood from forest produce. Forest management by communities has led to environmental improvement in the form of barren lands, denuded hills and degraded forest-lands being converted into productive woodlands. 

In India, Forest Rights Act, 2006 is landmark legislation which augments the terracotta vision i.e. it recognises the land rights and rights to forest resources of forest communities. 

Incentives Matter! 

When wildlife is state-owned, people who live in proximity to the protected animal are not keen on protecting the animals. For them, wildlife is an economic liability. They simply have no incentive to protect the wildlife. Infact, the probability of them choosing to collude with poachers and hunters is higher since it is one way of doing away with the economic loss which wildlife causes these communities. 

The Communal Areas Management Programme (CAMPFIRE) in Zimbabwe was the first community-based wildlife conservation initiative that approached wildlife as a renewable and profitable resource. Millions of impoverished Zimbabweans participated in the programme which changed their view towards wildlife and modeled their behaviour towards its conservation. It incentivised the Zimbabweans who lived near communally owned wildlife areas by generating revenue through wildlife tourism, trophy hunting and forestry. Since the economic gain of the participating community is directly linked to the presence of wildlife in their natural habitat, they have a direct incentive to not just safeguard but also efficiently manage wildlife. 

The outcome of the CAMPFIRE has been positive with an increase in numbers of endangered wildlife and the generation of much-needed revenue to finance the upkeep of the conservation project. Funding conservation activities is a difficult task in countries where a good chunk of the population is impoverished, hence the CAMPFIRE project offsets the costs borne by the Government by transferring wildlife management to local communities. Projects similar to the CAMPFIRE have also been implemented in places in India’s neighbourhood. Pakistan’s much-acclaimed conservation project of its national animal i.e. the Markhor is a case study that is at the heart of the terracotta vision. The markhor, an endangered species of mountain goats, which was projected to be extinct given its indiscriminate poaching, has now returned back to its habitat. The legalisation of regulated Trophy hunting with community partnership in Gilgit-Baltistan fundamentally restructured the incentives of the local community towards conservation of markhor and its habitat. 

In the terracotta vision, incentives matter and so do people. They matter precisely because conservation efforts that include communities, sustainable livelihoods and market-based incentives are much more resilient because they connect good intentions to sound conservation policies.

Read more: Restructuring political incentives to reform urban governance

*Views expressed are personal*

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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.